RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Artsy Mississippi puts on a good show in New Orleans

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

NEW ORLEANS – In search of a little R&R, or at least the latter “R,” I bet on the place where life is served up naked on the half shell with plenty of Tabasco.
New Orleans never disappoints, even with heat indexes in the triple digits. Spilling out of the car after an eight-hour drive, I stretched my tired legs in the Faubourg Marigny, the French Quarter’s lesser-known and dowdier neighbor, a place locals had just as soon tourists not discover. Some of us lucky tourists, however, have inside intelligence.
I followed my nose to Frenchmen Street, and it didn’t take long for my ears to kick in and hear what I’d come for: good music.
A marine biologist was “volunteering” on his sax with a band at Maison, and, across the street, Miss Sophie Lee sang about blue skies at The Spotted Cat. Speaking of cats, you can’t swing one without hitting a competent musician. They are lousy on the ground in New Orleans, and you don’t have to wait and brave the crowds at Jazz Fest. They live here.
Speaking of living, woman does not survive on music alone. I feasted on shrimp and crawfish at Adolfo’s before 8, not to mention enough bread to feed a small country. You climb steep stairs above a pint-size barroom to a hidden, romantic, garret-style restaurant and hope to get a table in a room that seems to sway in the breeze. No credit cards, no reservations.
Speaking of reservations, I had a few about a museum devoted to Southern art. Not because I don’t believe the South produces plenty of art, but because there’s nothing worse than contrived Southern-ness, be it in art, literature, movies or kudzu-draped poetry.
But the next day I got a treat I hadn’t counted on the way you count on music and good food here: I went to the Ogden Museum, which just happened to be showcasing Mississippi artists. Because Mississippi is my home, I felt this tsunami of pride. I may have been born in Georgia, raised in Alabama and had a torrid affair with Louisiana, but Mississippi claims my soul and knits my socks.
It didn’t hurt that my photographer friend Birney Imes’ work was spread out over an entire wing of the museum. Photographs from his Whispering Pines period filled the walls with a story, ostensibly, of an old man’s pickled egg of a bar. It’s also the story of race relations, loyalty, friendship and marriage.
I was so proud you’d have thought I took the pictures.
I also saw paintings by Tennessee Williams, which convinced me it’s a good thing he kept his day job. And photographs by Eudora Welty, as wonderful as her short stories.
Speaking of photographs, on the wall in the photo exhibit was a striking picture of my good friend from Michigan City, Miss., Blanche Aldrich, whom I last saw holding court at her 102nd birthday party in Memphis. It’s something to see a photo of one of your heroines on a museum wall. You know you’ve chosen well. Again, a big rush of pride.
Also featured were self-taught Mississippi painters, including the remarkable Theora Hamblett. And one room held William Dunlap’s accomplished paintings, which he says should be provocative, not decorative. There was, of course, a room full of Walter Anderson’s watercolors, rendered in a style inspired by the French cave paintings he saw as a young man.
Speaking of color, those of us lucky enough to live in Mississippi forget from time to time what an amazingly creative state this is. It’s almost too much to comprehend. We bog down in blues, or focus on Faulkner, forgetting the visual arts. Here I was reminded.
Mississippi looked good in Louisiana.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.